Anti-War Groups Sue for Protest Data, By: Judith Scherr

Tuesday March 14, 2006

Local anti-war activists, who say government agencies collected data on their meetings, demonstrations and events, filed suit last week to force the Department of Defense to disclose the contents of documents it has on file. 

The data, the existence of which was uncovered by an MSNBC report in December, were collected as part of the government’s Threat and Observation Notice program. TALON’s goal is to compile information on threats to military bases, according to Lisa Sitkin, an Emeryville-based attorney joining the ACLU complaint on behalf of the UC Berkeley Stop the War Coalition, the UC Santa Cruz Students Against War and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.  

The anti-war activities “seemed so far afield from collecting threats to military bases,” Sitkin said. In addition to getting the specific data collected by the government, attorneys hope to get a better idea of what the secretive TALON program is about. 

The UC Berkeley demonstration of April 2005, described in the DOD database, targeted military recruiters on campus, according to Matthew Taylor, a fourth-year UC Berkeley student in Peace and Conflict studies and a member of the Stop the War Coalition.  

In March, the student government had approved a resolution “condemning the immoral occupation of Iraq and banning the presence of military recruiters (on campus),” Taylor said. However, the resolution was ignored by the administration and recruitment continued. In reaction, the Berkeley Stop the War Coalition held a peaceful protest on campus in April.  

TALON collected data on the demonstration. 

The DOD’s spying on the students is part of the bigger picture where citizen rights have been under attack over the last few years, Taylor said. “They don’t want anyone who speaks out to be heard.”  

The complaint, filed March 7 in U.S. District Court, names the DOD as well as its component departments, the Army, Navy and Air Force, and calls on these entities to release the data due to the need to inform the public about the government’s domestic surveillance activities and the “imminent loss of substantial due process rights, including the right to privacy.” 

Filing suit at this time “is significant because there’s a huge national dispute on the extent to which there should be intelligence gathering,” said ACLU attorney Mark Schlosberg. “There’s a lot of public concern about government overreaching that targets groups engaged in political dissent.” 

Not only do such counterintelligence activities violate privacy rights, they are counterproductive, Schlosberg added. In casting a net “far too wide and not delineating between peaceful protests and acts of terrorism, they end up overwhelming law-enforcement officials,” he said. 

A long-time defender of open government, the Bay Guardian, is also a plaintiff. Defendants have 30 days from the time of filing to respond..